Corietta Thompson, 40, is approaching her six-year anniversary as a switchboard operator at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center. She said she is comfortable with her coworkers, learned the computer system codes and feels equally good working in groups as she does working on her own.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Thompson has a number of what she refers to as “challenges” – including post traumatic stress disorder, schizoaffective disorder and seasonal affective disorder. Thompson also said she is blind. She had gotten part-time jobs before, but they never stuck.
Now she’s able to hold a full-time job for the first time with some guidance from the Back to Work program at Cornerstone Montgomery.
Thompson is one of the approximately 600 people taking part in vocational programs at Cornerstone, a mental health services nonprofit based in Bethesda created in the 2012 merger of St. Luke’s House and Threshold Services. The organization now serves about 2,400 people in all with about 280 staff members, including mental health clinics, vocational services, psychiatric rehabilitation and housing services primarily for those who have Medicare and Medicaid.
Part of the mission is to be a “bearer of hope” and provide people with mental illness with meaningful lives, which, according to CEO Cari Guthrie Cho, research has shown often begins with stable housing, employment and supportive relationships.
“Mental illness does not mean that you can’t have a meaningful life,” she said. “That’s where a lot of this comes from…really just wanting, believing that the people we serve can have a happy life just like anybody else.”
Guthrie Cho said Cornerstone Montgomery staff members focus on person-centered care, or in other words, on what the clients want rather than anything imposed on them.
“We really want the goals that the client wants to be their goals, not things that we want them to do,” Guthrie Cho said. “It’s the focus of all our training. It’s the first thing I talk about with new staff when I do new staff orientation. Just hearing the way staff talk about the clients, it is all about helping them to be as independent as possible.”
The person-centered care extends to programs like the back to work program that Thompson used, said Vocational Services Director Anne Peyer. Peyer said the program typically ends the year with about 70 percent of clients employed, higher than many similar programs. Peyer said clients find Cornerstone Montgomery in a variety of ways – through other Cornerstone services, other providers, family and friends or self-referrals – but they always go through the same process of talking to the staff about what they want to do and how they want to find work.
“Work can sometimes be a big piece of helping people to have some more motivation and getting back to life because some people may have worked before and may have had these great careers and then had the onset of their illness and aren’t able to do what they used to do before. Some people maybe haven’t worked before and maybe didn’t think they could or maybe weren’t given the opportunity,” Peyer said. “It’s really integral in recovery wherever they are….one of the first questions when you go out and you meet people in social situations is often what do you do? If you don’t have an answer that can feel really bad and isolating.”
Guthrie Cho said Cornerstone Montgomery sometimes already has relationships with employers and can match clients to those jobs, but regardless they help clients with resumes, conducting informational interviews, mock job interviews and going on site visits to see what an environment feels like.
Peyer said once clients are employed, job coaches check in with clients at least three times per month at the start depending on the needs of the client and, if the employer knows the employee is a Cornerstone Montgomery client, meet with the supervisor at least once each month to see how everything is going.
For Thompson, a job coach seemed unnecessary at first because she thought they only got people jobs. When she started in the back to work program in 2010, she had already been working at the medical center since May 2009. She said she quickly realized they do much more than that.
“It’s helping people through special moments on the job, helping people to be able to develop coping skills in order to keep or maintain that job, how to advocate on the job,” Thompson said.
Although she did not initially feel comfortable working in groups, Thompson said she learned to cope by forming relationships with her coworkers and has joined one of her colleague’s churches. Now she listens to the prayer line at the church, meditates and practices yoga to help relax her mind.
The emergency codes she heard as an operator also used to make her nervous, but she just took a deep breath and did her best. Now, Thompson said she has trained three new people for the job who then got hired.
“That was an honor to me,” she said.
Thompson has also tried to become an advocate and leader. In addition to her job as an operator, she said she volunteers with Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind and takes care of her six-year-old daughter. She credits the job coaches for helping her push through the challenges that have come up.
“I can’t quit my job every time there’s a challenge. I would be no good to employers or myself if I do that,” she said.
Often job changes, in a new boss or system, can make it more difficult and that’s where the job coaches can help, Peyer said. The meetings can be more or less frequent depending on what the client is going through at work, she said; some people only continue meeting with the job coaches for a year or less after they start.
Overall, Peyer said employers are usually happy with the workers from Cornerstone Montgomery. Although there is a stigma that those with mental illness cannot or do not want to work, Peyer said the opposite is often true.
“One of the things that often employers will say is the people that I hire from Cornerstone Montgomery are so much more eager and dedicated than some of the other people because they have this drive to work and it’s maybe been more challenging for them to get there and the dedication…stands out to employers,” Peyer said.
Peyer said aside from overcoming that stigma, transportation can often be a challenge, especially in rural parts of the county or for youth who work late shifts at a movie theater when public transportation stops running.
Thompson usually takes the metro from her Silver Spring home to the Brookland metro station for work. But if there is an unexpected shift or she cannot arrange for the Metro Access van to come in advance, she said she can use a gift card for Barwood taxi. Through a partnership between Cornerstone Montgomery, Barwood and the Rotary Club of North Bethesda, clients can get scholarships for cab money when public transportation is not an option.
Thompson said even when she gets discouraged she springs back and is proud of how far she has come.
She is currently working on a master’s degree in human behavior from Capella University, which she plans to complete in March. She then wants to get a Ph.D. and work with children and underserved families to give back to the community.
“I have a desire to really give back and make a difference,” she said. “I function at a very high level and I don’t let (my challenges) hold me back. I move at the speed of my ambition.”